Over the last year, college students have come face-to-face with their campus administrators’ varied capacities for effective communication and the effort they do -- or do not -- invest in advocating for underserved students, particularly those from minority backgrounds. Some schools’ poor performance in this regard during the COVID-19 pandemic has further laid bare their disregard for these students’ needs.
As a rising senior at Georgetown University, I am quite new to journalism and activism, but I have had significant experience watching young people and the Twitter masses engage in political discourse and social advocacy. I’m the political cartoonist for the political action committee The Lincoln Project and the environmental news platform Our Daily Planet, as well as the founder and host of a political comedy web series with a staff of over 50 undergraduate and graduate students from around the world. One of my strongest initial impressions from these last few years is that far too many people default to generalizing about large groups and misassigning blame when forming and acting on their opinions -- often due to simply not understanding the facts.
While the intense passion of many political people -- political young people in particular -- for various vital causes is profoundly admirable, my experience over the last few years has given me cause to be extremely concerned about the potential impacts of some individuals’ sloppy approach to discourse.
Put Your Adversity in Perspective
Americans experienced a vast range of discomfort and suffering during the COVID-19 pandemic, with some experiencing far more intense trauma than others.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, disparities between racial and ethnic groups in the United States became even clearer. Black, Hispanic and Asian people have experienced significantly higher rates of infection, hospitalization and death than white people. About one-third of COVID-related deaths were among non-Hispanic Black people, while that group accounts for only 12 percent of the total U.S. population.
Some dealt with understandable and legitimate discomfort as a result of factors like increased screen time, isolation from friends and canceled trips. But as Americans begin to look at the pandemic in our rearview mirror and reflect on our individual experiences, I believe a reminder is in order.
It is easy to fall into self-pity when you do not know enough about others’ experiences to put your own into context. Becoming an effective advocate for a cause begins with holistically understanding your personal experience in its broader context.
Yes, regardless of your background or socioeconomic status, we -- students and others in our institutional communities and beyond -- lived through a traumatic global event this past year. Some of us may have been immunocompromised and anxious about contracting COVID-19. We may have had to spend more time in front of a computer, which may have had detrimental impacts on our health, including headaches, neck/shoulder pain, dizziness, blurred/double vision, dry and itchy eyes, and other problems reported by students in the recent Student Voice/College Pulse survey of 2,002 U.S. college students; four out of five respondents experienced detrimental physical impacts as a result of increased screen time. As students, we may not have been able to see our friends last year, and those of us who sacrificed time with loved ones out of civic responsibility for those more susceptible to the virus deserve considerable kudos.
But students and others who experienced comparatively low pandemic adversity must remember: while it sincerely is unfortunate to have had to experience that discomfort, and anyone should feel free to express frustrations, please put the unpleasantness experienced into perspective. Contracting COVID, not having enough food and experiencing the death of a loved one were sources of potential trauma. Disinfecting your baked beans was not.
‘Extra Discussion Boards’ vs. Food Shortages
Julia Lo Cascio, a rising senior in the Georgetown University School of Nursing and Health Studies (NHS) and part-time medical assistant, experienced both sides of the pandemic adversity spectrum.
“The Zoom-iverse has been omnipresent in the lives of humanity for over a year now. I personally would have six-plus hours of Zoom class a day, followed by club meetings held by heads desperate for engagement and sometimes even a family gathering,” says Lo Cascio. “But during this time, I also worked on the front lines part-time as a medical assistant. It became clear very quickly how easy so many members of Gen Z have had it … I saw firsthand the struggles of full-time workers, even managing schedules to cover someone who had to quarantine from exposure.”
“In the pre-vaccine world, contracting COVID, or worse, passing it on to beloved family members, was a real concern and made classmates’ gripes about extra discussion boards and busy work seem relatively self-centered,” Lo Cascio adds. “I do not mean to diminish the struggles of doing a full year of school on Zoom, as I did, but I’m glad to have had a dual perspective on how lives were changed so quickly and for so long.”
Some students’ colleges prevented them from fulfilling basic physical needs, including food and exercise.
“Despite being fully vaccinated, I was forced to stay in a quarantine dorm where they forgot to feed me for three days,” shares Sameer “Ender” Bahethi, a member of the Class of 2023 and the ROTC at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
“I was told I wasn’t allowed to go out for walks or runs, and that wasn’t overturned until we signed a 400-person petition. They sent us into a second two-week quarantine due to an excess of 30 positive cases, and then I watched them continue to conduct tours of the campus despite having 45 active cases. I feel abandoned by my school.”
Mutual aid programs have emerged at universities across the country, including Rice, UVA, Georgetown, Northeastern, Temple, Duke and plenty of other schools. University-based mutual aid programs help students meet their most basic needs and have done profoundly important work during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As of June 4, Georgetown Mutual Aid had redistributed over $100,000 of donations from 3,098 donors to Georgetown students in need, according to statistics the organization posted on Instagram.
Binqi Chen, a member of the Class of 2022 in Georgetown’s NHS and a Georgetown Mutual Aid representative, says that food, perhaps the most fundamental need one can have, has made up 63 percent of requests and is the most prevalent request Georgetown Mutual Aid has received.
The Danger of Generalizations
Last year, I gave a TED Talk through TEDxGeorgetown about the importance of empathy in discourse and the potential dangers posed by overgeneralizations. Even when discussing an individual or an organization’s wrongdoing casually with a friend, we must be careful to speak precisely. A reputation can easily become more informed by rumor than fact.
Think about the golden rule. How would you feel if you were in a situation where you made a mistake that contributed to a broader situation, but as the story of the situation spread around, people who didn’t understand the full extent of what happened continually passed on a version of the story that inflated your misdoing, to the point where your whole reputation was damaged? If you’d rather that people not do that to you, don’t do it to others. Be fully informed about something before you develop an opinion and speak about it.
Many campus administrations could be doing more to help their students or prevent unnecessary suffering, especially for marginalized groups experiencing a lack of equity.
And there is essentially no such thing as a “final” opinion, or an opinion that cannot be further informed by new information, ongoing events and more perspectives. Continue to be open to learning more and tweaking your takes.
Many campus administrations could be doing more to help their students or prevent unnecessary suffering, especially for marginalized groups experiencing a lack of equity. But it is important for all to think and discuss actions with a concrete understanding of the facts and nuance involved.
“Students' experiences vary, and interaction with [the Georgetown] administration differs,” says Georgetown Mutual Aid’s Binqi Chen. “I think that giving a blanket statement does more harm than good and can be dangerous.”
When looking to investigate the sources of suffering and those who ought to be held accountable, we must be sure that we are not only identifying who specifically caused the problems in question, but also to what extent certain groups were at fault. In casual conversation, it is easy to casually assign blame or vastly overgeneralize based on what feeling you get about the situation, what others have told you about their personal experiences and your own personal experiences, without having done the research into who did what.
For example, Christopher Gold, a member of the Class of 2023 in Georgetown College, rightly points out that the Georgetown campus administration did not have as much control over campus reopening decisions as many students blame it for.
“Considering that the biggest decision regarding our health in the last semester -- the choice for the majority of students to stay home -- was made by the city of D.C. instead of the university, it seems ridiculous to whine to Georgetown about how they handled it.”
Bilge Batsukh, a member of the Class of 2022 at the University of Virginia, also encourages students to give credit where credit is due and withhold blame where it is not.
“Anecdotally, UVA faculty, administrators and staff on the whole have presented genuine efforts to connect and support me whenever I have reached out, and even when they detected reason to believe I might have wanted their aid,” says Batsukh, whose personal experience suggests that this particular campus administration was truly seeking to do good and ensure the health of its students.
“Generally, the university receives a lot of criticism from well-meaning students for its insensitivity or lack of awareness regarding mental health issues -- but that, I think, is a great deal of din over relatively little substance. Help is out there, and connecting to those who need it is the hardest part of running a mental health regimen for thousands of college kids; UVA deserves credit for the valuable services it really does provide in that regard.”
To pursue change and encourage powerful institutions and individuals to bring about change, individuals must complain. I am the political cartoonist for The Lincoln Project and the environmental news platform Our Daily Planet. I believe deeply in the importance of advocacy against injustice -- but specifically, nuanced, civil and fact-informed advocacy, performed with just the right amount of humility.
Discourse seeks to advance those on either side of an issue to a place where they both understand the truth. When discourse is productive, both sides adopt a nuanced understanding of the core of an issue, which is influenced by stories from a variety of perspectives, as well as, ideally, moral truth.
Read the full analysis of the Student Voice survey on student health habits.